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Roster Reset: How do the Tigers fill a Nick Bolton sized hole in the middle of their defense?

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Devin Nicholson and Blaze Alldredge look like the Tigers’ most likely starting linebackers. Who else fits into the mix?

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s spring ball time!

Well, kind of.

Mizzou is scheduled to open up spring practice on February 28th. So, it’s close. Spring practice is slated to come to an end on March 26th. We’re still not sure when (if?) there will be a Black and Gold game this spring.

With spring practice only a few short weeks away, it’s time to take a look at who is back, who is leaving and who the Tigers have added since the end of the 2020 season.

We kicked things off with the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line, defensive end and defensive tackle. Let’s continue with a look at the linebackers.

Linebacker Reset:

Returning:

  • Jamal Brooks (Senior)
  • Cameron Wilkins (Junior)
  • Devin Nicholson (Sophomore)
  • Chad Bailey (Sophomore)
  • Gerald Nathan, Jr. (Sophomore)
  • Will Norris (Freshman)
  • Jamie Pettway (Freshman)

Arriving:

Returning Player Analysis:

Goodbye, Nick Bolton. You’ll be missed so very much. With Bolton moving on, the Tigers’ leading returning tackler is Devin Nicholson. The sophomore (junior? Maybe? Who knows with these new classification rules) had a pretty darn productive season with 45 solo tackles and 82 total tackles.

Who replaces Bolton? Well, a new arrival. We’ll get to him in a moment. Jamal Brooks, Cameron Wilkins and Chad Bailey all had opportunities in Bolton’s absence a year ago. All three figure to work into the rotation at some point. Also, don’t forget about Jamie Pettway and Will Norris. Both have plenty to offer. It might not be in the 2021 season, but we’ll see them eventually.

New Arrival to Keep an Eye on:

Okay, now for the player who figures to fill in for Bolton: Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge. Alldredge is a heck of a story. He was under-recruited out of high school and went to JUCO. He didn’t get the big offers out of JUCO he was looking for, but he found a great landing spot at Rice University. He worked his way up the depth chart and finished his first season as a full-time starter in 2019 with 102 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Rice only played five games this season, but Alldredge posted another 47 tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.

The Tigers are banking on that production translating to the SEC. He’s a bit undersized at just 220 pounds, and there were moments when he struggled against offensive linemen who got to the second level. It happens. Not everyone is going to be Nick Bolton. Nobody should expect that from Alldredge.

The expectations for Alldredge should be similar to Mike Scherer or Andrew Wilson in the early 2010s. Rack up tackles to limit the damage. If that’s where your expectations are set, Alldredge has the potential to be a fan favorite by the end of the year.

The Tigers also added two talented, hard-hitting freshmen in Zach Lovett and Dameon Wilson. It would be a surprise to see them get much playing time this season, but they’ll certainly have plenty of opportunities to start in the future.

Position Battle to Watch:

It would be a surprise if Alldredge and Nicholson aren’t two of your starting linebackers in the first game of the season. But who else fits into the mix in the Tigers’ base 4-3 defense?

Most teams are only in the ‘base’ 4-3 defense 20-30 percent of the time. So “base” might be overstating things a bit. Alas, it’s a formation the Tigers will use, and someone will have to fit into the mix. Brooks, Wilkins, Bailey and Pettway are probably the favorites to fight for that third spot in the lineup. Norris could try to battle his way into the rotation.

That’s the one spot most likely to be up for grabs. If I had to guess, I would think Brooks finds a way to win the third starting spot alongside Alldredge and Nicholson.

Bottom Line:

It’s impossible to replace Nick Bolton. Nobody should be asked to do so. Please don’t hold Alldredge to those standards. The Tigers’ defense will almost certainly take a step back against the run this season because it won’t have one of the best players in the country in the middle of the field. Bolton had a special ability to know where the play was going before the ball was snapped. That’s gone now.

But the Tigers aren’t completely devoid of talent at the position. Alldredge is a heck of a player in his own right, and Drinkwitz did well to add him to the mix. Nicholson has shown ability as an all-around linebacker who can rush the passer, play against the run and drop in coverage. The Tigers have some answers at the position. The real question is the depth. Who will step up as the third “starter,” and who will emerge as someone who can spell the two starters if they need a breather?